At his own initiative, Dr. Martin Weyl has decided to save Hiriya and transform the vast garbage dump outside Tel Aviv into a huge park. In the meantime, he says he’s learned more than he bargained for about capital, government and vested interests − as well as about Ehud Olmert.

By Noam Dvir

Two Sundays ago, Martin Weyl’s book “On Stench and Beauty: The Greening of Israel’s Largest Garbage Dump” (Am Oved; in Hebrew ) was finally published. The director of the Beracha Foundation, a philanthropic organization, and former director of the Israel Museum – Weyl is a key figure in the planning and creation of the Ariel Sharon Park now being created on the outskirts of southern Tel Aviv, in the area around the former Hiriya landfill. The original publication date of the book was in late April, but the printing was halted because of potential legal problems related to the Holyland housing project scandal in Jerusalem.

The police suspect that Avigdor Kelner, who has a controlling interest in Polar Investments which owns the Holyland project, asked his close friend Ehud Olmert, then-minister of industry and trade, to intervene on his behalf in regard to the rezoning of Hiriya. Polar, through its subsidiary Hazera, planned to build no fewer than 10,000 residential units on farmland close to the dump, which was originally leased to it for agricultural experiments. The rezoning would have meant millions of shekels in profit.

The police are investigating suspicions that Kelner, seeking to promote the interests of Hazera, paid hundreds of thousands of shekels in bribes to various people, some of them employees of the Israel Lands Administration. In view of the legal sensitivities of the case – compounded by serious allegations hurled by Weyl in his book at Kelner, Olmert and Hazera – Am Oved decided to go through the text again with a fine-tooth comb. A few sentences and phrases were changed and the book was printed.

Olmert is one of the prominent figures in “On Stench and Beauty”: His name comes up repeatedly, because between February 2003 and May 2006, he was both industry minister and chairman of the ILA, where the land slated for the park is registered. Olmert, by the way, never made a secret of his support for the Polar housing project. For example, at a conference held at Tel Aviv University in 2005 he was scathingly critical of the planning authorities who had given the green light to the park.

“They have no limit and no proper judgment,” he said then. “Anyone who thinks he can finance a park like this from public coffers … invites corrupt manipulation. Remember my words: Ayalon Park [as it was known then] will not be built.”

Time proved Olmert wrong.

When asked why, in his view, Olmert was so fiercely opposed to the park, Weyl hesitates. “Olmert was a friend of Kelner’s, so you had capital and government. Olmert wanted construction, he wanted Holylands everywhere – that’s where the profits come from. I remember that one day I invited Olmert’s wife, Aliza, to visit us. She was very impressed, like everyone who sees the project. I asked her if she could maybe help me with Ehud. She said: ‘I can’t, he is against the park,'” recalls Weyl.

Weyl gives few interviews; he considers them ego trips. The last interview was four years ago, in TheMarker, and even then he had to be persuaded of the importance of speaking out. This time, though, he was eager to talk because he wants the issue of Hiriya to stay in the headlines.

‘Birds of prey’

Last week, after a years-long public and legal battle, the Interior Ministry finally gave the go-ahead for infrastructure work which will make it possible to open Hiriya’s mountain of garbage – one of the major attractions of the Sharon park – to the public. Yet, even though the park is now a fait accompli, Weyl is still fearful of what he describes as “birds of prey,” which will keep trying to thwart the project. Meanwhile, Hazera still refuses the ILA’s demand to evacuate the area it holds and is continuing to wage a legal struggle to get the park abolished and to reinstate the authorization the company was given to build residential housing at the site. Moreover, Hazera is demanding compensation of more than NIS 200 million for the delay in approving its construction plans.

“In fact, they have no rights to the land,” Weyl says. “The first time we tried to find out what their legal status is, the ILA did not want to give us the information. They claimed the file was lost. Finally we managed to extract the information and discovered that the Hazera contract had expired long ago. They received an evacuation notice and now are arguing over the amount of the compensation. This exceeds all logic and is extremely maddening.”

Hazera rejects these claims totally and says it has held the land with the knowledge and full consent of the ILA for 50 years. The company’s lawyers claim Hazera pays an annual leasing fee that the ILA has never declined to receive. “The ILA is not the sovereign of the land and Hazera is not the serf,” said the company’s lawyers in response to an evacuation demand two months ago, with which they refused to comply.

We are standing on the peak of Hiriya, 80 meters above sea level. That’s not so high when compared to Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers – about 10 stories. But the view is spectacular. To the west lie Holon and Bat Yam, stretching to the Mediterranean shoreline. To the north is Tel Aviv’s low-income Hatikva neighborhood and beyond it, the glass-and-steel skyline of the metropolis. To the east a visitor can see Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, zebras and giraffes at the safari park in Ramat Gan and the surrounding neighborhoods. Below is the Ayalon riverbed and vast areas of open land which are slated to become the largest urban park in Israel and one of the largest of its kind in the world: twice the size of Central Park in New York and a worthy competitor to Hyde Park in London and Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

Weyl, dressed in light trousers, a blue shirt, a jacket and a broad-brimmed white hat, looks like a contemporary version of a European explorer. His Dutch face (“with the Portuguese nose,” he adds ) breaks into a smile as he approaches the edge of the hill and takes in the view. He can no longer remember how many times he has stood here, expounding his vision to politicians, mayors, journalists, experts in various fields, visitors from abroad and others. The most crucial of those times was the visit in July 2003 by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon.

“The watershed was the Sharon visit,” Weyl says. “In all honesty, I thought we were going to lose the whole business. In the end, we somehow managed to bring him here. He went up to the top and was stunned by the beautiful view. He started to tell us how he had fought here in the War of Independence as part of the Alexandroni Brigade and described the movement of the forces. Afterward, in the conference room, he asked everyone to leave and said: ‘Martin, what do you want?’ – just like that. I explained that the National Planning and Building Council was about to vote in favor of construction in the park and that we wanted his support. We were the minority and I knew we would not win. Sharon just said: ‘Let’s do it.’ I was so moved that I was ready to thank him with hugs, even kisses.”

But on that same day an aide to the prime minister intimated to Weyl that the reason for Sharon’s visit was the immense pressure being brought to bear on him by real-estate moguls and their lawyers – not necessarily his concern for the public interest. In the end, at the moment of truth, on the eve of the vote in the national council, Sharon called in the ministers and persuaded them to oppose the residential construction project. Maybe it was his son, Omri, then leader of the Green Lobby in the Knesset, who urged him to intervene personally.

Four years later, with Sharon in a coma in the wake of a stroke and his son entangled in legal problems of his own (he was sentenced in 2006 to a nine-month jail term for illegally raising funds for his father’s campaign for the Likud leadership in 1999 ), Weyl put forward the idea of naming the park for Sharon. Weyl now reveals that naming it after the founder of the Kadima party was part of an effort to protect the park from attempts by Ehud Olmert – who had inherited the Kadima leadership from Sharon – to create a “political problem” at what was clearly a public site. A festive ceremony held in October 2007 atop Hiriya, at which the project was formally named Ariel Sharon Park, was attended by the entire cabinet, led by Olmert himself, thus constituting an official seal of approval for the park’s status.

Philosophical discussion

Weyl’s new book is a combination of a personal diary and a guide through the labyrinthine corridors of Israeli bureaucracy. In the course of 175 pages, the author describes his protracted struggle to turn the central landfill of metropolitan Tel Aviv into a huge 8,000-dunam (2,000-acre ) park. Along the way, Weyl has some illuminating things to say about the modes of activity of local politicians and, more unusually, offers a philosophical-artistic discussion about the nature of the park and the interplay between landscape architecture and art.

No one made Weyl responsible for the future of Hiriya, but the gigantic, reeking mountain of garbage in the center of the country always bothered him.

“Our country’s ‘business card’ is Hiriya,” he says. “Everyone who flies here sees it. Think of the effect if someone were to arrive one day with a large heap of garbage and dump it in the middle of your living room. In terms of size and beauty, Israel is like a living room, so such an event is unconscionable. When I retired as director of the Israel Museum I decided this would be my mission.”

Hiriya has been the main garbage dump of metropolitan Tel Aviv since the mid-1950s. Before that, it was the site of an Arab village named Al-Khayriyya, from which residents fled in 1948. Within only a decade after the dump’s creation, it was taking in 500 tons of garbage a day. The putrid smell, the ongoing pollution of the groundwater reserves and the flocks of birds that hovered around the site – dangerously close to Ben-Gurion International Airport – prompted the authorities to examine periodically the possibility of closing down the site. However, it was not until December 1998, due to the serious risk posed to planes, that the decision was made to close the dump and convert it to a garbage-transfer station on route to the Dudaim dump in the Negev.

A few months earlier, Weyl had snuck into the site secretly.

“It was like a military fortress, so I had to get a lift in a garbage truck,” he recalls. “We drove up to the top and I was met by a bizarre, surrealistic sight. Mounds of garbage, tens of thousands of birds overhead, noise, stench and people poking through the refuse looking for things. I think that anyone trying to describe hell would have benefited from a visit to the site. After that experience, I was more convinced than ever that action was necessary regarding Hiriya. It became an obsession.”

Weyl was no stranger to environmental art. During his 15-year tenure as director of the Israel Museum (1981-1996 ), he initiated the building of “The Golem” – more popularly known as “The Monster” – in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood: a large environmental play structure, designed by the French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, with three tongues that act as slides. The first colorful sketches sent him by the sculptor now hang framed on the wall of his home in the nearby Ein Kerem neighborhood.

In regard to the Hiriya project, he says that at the outset he focused only on the restoration. “The overall conception of the park did not come until a later stage. I thought the garbage mountain should be turned into something embodying a symbolic and aesthetic aspect. I saw the mountain as the epitome of the mismanagement of garbage and as reflecting disdain for our natural resources. My thinking was that if we could turn it into something successful and heal the wound, that could help the ‘greens’ in their struggle and also provoke a certain catharsis – show that it was possible to transform something unacceptable and negative into something positive. Paris has the Eiffel Tower and New York has the Statue of Liberty. Why shouldn’t we have Hiriya?”

The most publicity

Weyl’s first move, by now as chairman of the Beracha Foundation, was to convene 15 artists and architects from around the world to create conceptual works dealing with the transformation of the vast mound of garbage. Twentieth-century art conducted a continuing love affair with the world of refuse, he notes, citing Picasso’s used wires and Duchamp’s urinal sculpture. Weyl was certain the artists would immediately discern the treasure that lay hidden at Hiriya.

One sun-drenched day in the winter of 1998 the group ascended the hill and started to burrow into it excitedly. A year later, a highly unusual exhibition opened at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, called “Hiriya in the Museum.” In it the participants – among them Micha Ullman, Shlomo Aronson, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Vito Acconci – presented their utopian fantasies for recycling Israel’s largest garbage dump. It was the most publicized show in the history of the Tel Aviv Museum.

Along with intriguing works by the artists and landscape architects the exhibition featured “Ayalon Park,” a work by the architects Ulrik Plesner and David Guggenheim, and geographer Mordecai Kaplan. Effectively, this was a model, a first blueprint for the park; it was commissioned by Yossi Farhi, then Tel Aviv district planner in the Interior Ministry. A vast park of 2,000 acres was envisioned, encompassing the iconic Mikveh Israel agricultural school, Hiriya, Darom Park in Tel Aviv and the safari park in Ramat Gan – a green lung in the heart of Israel’s major metropolitan center. The Beracha Foundation immediately embraced the project, raised money for it, and extended its patronage to the rest of the park as well. Since then, Weyl has been working closely with the Interior Ministry, first with Farhi and today with his successor, Naomi Angel.

“About two million people live in the Hiriya area,” Weyl says. “Some people say that the park we are planning is too big and cite as an example Central Park, which is half the size and is large enough for eight million people. What they forget is that Central Park was created in the middle of the 19th century, when New York’s population was only 250,000 people. Today they would undoubtedly build something far larger. In fact, they are planning to build islands in the Hudson River to meet the demand for parks.

“I feel that I am engaged in a constant struggle,” Weyl continues. “I am told that I will never find the money needed for the park. My background involves fundraising for a museum. I tell everyone that if we are able to raise funds for Hadassah University Hospital or for universities or museums, why should we not succeed in doing the same for a park that costs far less than any of those projects?”

We are sitting in the green, tranquil yard of Weyl’s home in Ein Kerem. The gilded turrets of the Russian Orthodox Church and the tower of a church of the Franciscan Order thrust skyward between the red-tiled roofs of the homes in the picturesque neighborhood. Weyl points to the Hadassah University Hospital, which dominates a hill across the way. “The hospital is now building a new wing at a cost of $250 million,” he says. “The initial estimate we received for the whole park is $150 million. I consulted with a large number of donors. There is a young generation in the United States that is very interested in ecological issues. I am in contact with a number of people who are willing to give substantial sums. At the same time, I have created a friends association for the park … It’s a long process and I know it will certainly not be completed in my lifetime.”

Two suitcases

Martin Weyl, 70, is the scion of an aristocratic Dutch family from Rotterdam whose roots lie in 15th-century Spain. Members of his family were physicians to the king; after the expulsion they obtained a similar status in the Portuguese royal court. The next station was Antwerp and finally The Netherlands, where one of Weyl’s great-grandfathers established the famed Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. In time, the family became secular and liberal. Weyl’s father was a lawyer; his mother, nee De Pinto, a housewife.

Weyl was born two weeks before the outbreak of World War II. His family – which he describes as “pampered, with servants” – was instantly dispossessed and its members incarcerated in camps. At first they were sent to Barneveld, which was intended for the Dutch elites, and then to Westerbork, from where 100,000 Jews were transported to the death camps. Finally, the Weyls were sent to Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia. The train that left before theirs, bound for Auschwitz, carried Anne Frank and her family.

Weyl is uncomfortable talking about the Holocaust, and repeatedly asks not to go into details. Still, one memory mentioned in his book comes up in the conversation with him: about a game he and his friends played in the refuse dump in Theresienstadt. Trying to ward off boredom, they set pieces of garbage ablaze by filtering the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass. Today he sees this as a possible intimation of his extensive preoccupation with garbage later in life.

In general, Weyl espouses unpopular opinions about what he calls the “overly extensive” engagement with the Holocaust in Israel: “To put it in the sharpest way, the Holocaust has become, in my view, a haven from coping with our current problems. It is an unhealthy occupation with nostalgia. I do not accept the idea of taking youngsters to visit the camps in Poland, but not having them meet with Arabs or Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews]. I doubt that [Jewish] schoolchildren in this country have ever visited an Arab village. We have to teach the Holocaust, but I think it has become quite exaggerated – all the studies and money that go into it. We as Jews in the Land of Israel must always look to the future.”

After the war, Weyl and his close family returned to Holland. Here too he refuses to go into details. “From my point of view, they did not survive,” he mutters, and says no more on the subject.

For his part, he returned to school and was later invited to join the circles of the aristocracy “so they would have a token Jew in the picture. I had a problem about what to do with my Judaism. My family tried to forget everything: They wanted to get back to their prewar life very quickly.” His parents planned a privileged academic future for him and pursuit of one of the “liberal professions,” like them and their forbears. But after meeting, for the first time, Israeli army soldiers who were in Holland as part of a delegation, Weyl decided to try something else. Flying in the face of his family’s wishes, he joined the Zionist movement Habonim at age 19 and shortly afterward packed two suitcases and immigrated to Israel.

He met his wife, Tamar – at the time a member of a Nahal Brigade settlement group and now a linguist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – on Kibbutz Beit Ha’emek, his first home in Israel. They were married and moved to Jerusalem. The most readily available job for him at the time was as a construction worker at the new Israel Museum, which opened in 1965 on an exposed hill near the government compound. Weyl subsequently became interested in art and worked as a guide at the museum while studying history of art at the nearby Hebrew University.

“There was an atmosphere of hysteria when the museum opened,” he recalls. “There was no museum culture in the country and people thought they were coming for a picnic or a barbecue.”

During his 30 years of work at the museum – as guide, chief curator and, ultimately, director – he sought to eradicate what he saw as a basic lack of understanding of art. One of the projects he strongly supported was the Youth Wing, where at present some 100,000 children participate each year in a wide range of activities; this concept has become a model for museums around the world. Another key task was fundraising and bringing collections of art to the museum. He learned the “art of schnorring” from the unrivaled expert: Teddy Kollek, the legendary mayor of Jerusalem. When Weyl retired, he left a developed museum, but one that was vulnerable to criticism for being commercial and not sufficiently open to developments in the art world.

“I am even ready to do a striptease to raise money for the museum,” he told Haaretz in a farewell interview in 1996. He still has an entry sticker to the museum grounds on the windshield of his car, though there is little love lost between Weyl and James Snyder, his successor as director. He visits the museum to check his mailbox and no more. From his three decades at the museum Weyl took an impressive management record and worldwide connections. A year after his retirement he was named chairman of the Beracha Foundation, which was established in 1971 by Caroline and Joseph Gruss. The foundation is registered in Europe and most of its board members are foreign. Upon taking over, Weyl channeled the foundation’s fundraising activities into three main fields: the environment, Jewish-Arab coexistence and culture.

‘A recycling Disneyland’

Weyl devotes much of his book to the planning of the Hiriya park and to the complex cultural, artistic and engineering issues that arose, and cites examples from the four corners of the earth and from different historical eras.

“I see this as a gigantic curating project – maybe the biggest of its kind in the world,” he says. “The only project that comes close to a vast project on this scale might be the carving of the portraits of the American presidents on Mount Rushmore.”

The landscape architect in charge of Hiriya is Prof. Peter Latz, from Germany, who won the two international competitions for the restoration of the dump and the design of the entire park. Latz is an expert in wastelands and abandoned industrial zones; under his hand, such sites become green parks – without erasing their previous function or heritage.

Ariel Sharon Park is not only a green lung, it’s also a basin with a capacity for holding millions of cubic meters of rainwater from flooding on the Ayalon freeway and in the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv and Holon every year. According to the plan being worked out in Germany (in conjunction with the Israeli firms of Broide-Maoz and Moria Sekely ), the park will be divided into three main landscaped areas: a sunken basin into which the Ayalon stream will flow, characterized by dense vegetation; park-like sections with isolated clumps of trees; and the mountain itself. On the slopes, which are now being shored up to prevent the collapse of unstable sections of soil, groves of fruit trees will be planted, matching the agricultural landscape surrounding the site. Atop Mount Hiriya an observation point and what is being called a “paradise garden” will be built. Weyl hopes that the public will be allowed to visit freely within a year. Already now there is a two-year waiting list for visits by schools and institutions to the park.

Parking areas and restaurants will be built at the park’s entrances. Indeed, a first-of-its-kind social-ecological restaurant is already operating at the educational center located to the east of the Hiriya hill; the waiters and other staff are youngsters from the unit for the advancement of youth in the Ramat Gan municipality. A metropolitan recycling center will be built nearby, so that visitors will be able to see close-up how their garbage becomes compost or other raw materials. Weyl calls this “a recycling Disneyland.”

Also planned is an open amphitheater with a capacity of 50,000. Adjacent to it a new lake covering 20 acres will be dug, to be filled with water recycled in the park. A new Israel Railways station is also planned. The question is how much this project will succeed in reflecting Hiriya’s current, post-industrial character. Weyl agrees that garbage is a legitimate product of our culture, and that covering it with grass and trees is perhaps disingenuous.

According to Yigal Tumarkin, one of the artists who took part in the “Hiriya in the Museum” exhibition, “Some people say there is nothing more provocative than a beautiful, filthy girl, so who knows – maybe garbage is the source of eroticism?” The artist thus hit the nail on the head in terms of the unknown element in the equation of the park’s design: Will it be a “correct,” sterile site like the refurbished Tel Aviv Port, suitable mainly for families with children, or will it contain hidden, wilder areas where couples can be alone or people can just wander and get lost? Weyl laughs.

“This park is so big that I am certain there will be many areas with a different character, which will meet all kinds of tastes and needs. You have to remember that it will be a long time before we have a detailed plan, and even then the park will not be planned down to the last detail.”

The most frustrating struggle, Weyl complains, is preserving high standards. “Culture in Israel suffers from provincialism,” he says. “You know, we live within closed borders and are very quickly pleased with ourselves. Because of this lack of openness we do not possess sufficient critical acumen about what we do. I see it in the theater, in music, in art. Everything is described as ‘amazing.’ ‘Amazing’ has become something commonplace in Hebrew. In fact, it has become a dangerous word.” An example, he says, is the parking area next to the visitors’ center at Hiriya.

“We built a wonderful structure, but next to it they built a standard parking lot. Why make do with the minimum when you can do something thrilling? Let people start smelling the park from the moment they enter. Now I have a problem with the hut containing the park’s offices, which is located on Hiriya. I told Danny Sternberg [CEO of the government company in charge of the park]: If you’re already doing something, then why not build something that will reflect the spirit of the project? That’s the hardest battle: to maintain the highest standards and not go around saying everything is marvelous.”

Maybe that’s impossible in Israel.

“Absolutely not. I think that if you are a good client, you can make demands. I always told the curators at the museum to try harder, too. If it’s publicity or graphics, you have to create an effect of ‘Wow!’ – of transcendence.”

Weyl is also well acquainted with this mediocrity in his city, Jerusalem. “I feel cheated, like everyone,” he says. It’s sad that the systems are so rotten that you can’t influence or improve them.”

However, Weyl is effusive in his praise for the green groups, which backed him throughout his struggle for the restoration of Hiriya and the creation of Sharon Park. The Beracha Foundation funds a considerable portion of such organizations’ activity. However, at present, as he is about to retire from the foundation, he cannot promise that the support will continue. At the same time, he is repelled by some of the green groups’ political activities. “I think they have to stay professional, not political,” he says. “I don’t think that a green activist has to necessarily decide whether to give back the West Bank or not.”

The Beracha Foundation was also closely involved in the Knesset’s enactment of some key green legislation, such as the bottle-deposit law. A law obliging manufacturers to recycle the packages they make will also soon come into effect.

“As a society of abundance, we do not know how to deal with all the garbage we produce,” Weyl observes. “In Sweden there is 85 percent recycling: We have 12 percent. To be a civilized society, we have to cope with these products.”

Could it be that some of the political difficulties in creating the park were due to the alliance with the greens?

“I think it would not have been possible to do anything without them. They helped me wage the struggle and persuade people, they came to the various committees and they were ready for every development.”

Even now, with the bulldozers working vigorously on the first stages of the park, Weyl is still uneasy, as some individuals and groups are still trying to torpedo the plans for the park. Attorney Shraga Biran, who represents the Kiach Association, which owns some of the land of Mikveh Israel, tried in the past to get part of the area rezoned for residential construction and labeled the park’s flourishing recycling industries “a new Hiriya.” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is also still making things difficult, according to Weyl. Huldai insists that the funds for the park must come from the construction of new neighborhoods on part of the site. The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality recently opposed the transfer of its land at Hiriya to the park’s management company and also demanded NIS 30 million in compensation.

“They are the main contaminators of the area,” Weyl notes, “and yet they refuse to help us correct the situation.”

What will happen when you leave the Beracha Foundation? Will that be the end of the park?

“You have to understand I have no legal status in all this. I am just there, I came from outside; a private person, from a certain viewpoint. With the help of the foundation I put in a little money here and there for the planning. No more. What’s special, I think, is that a private person can, despite everything, influence processes on a national scale. The park is a success story and it is wrong to focus solely on the bad aspects.

“It was important for me to publish the book in order to show that if the will exists and if there are devoted people, there is also a chance to win. A civilized society is the result of civilized people. The citizens must act, and the proof is that, in the end, there are results.”